No side deal for soldiers, Theresa. If you can legislate for the language, you can legislate for the legacy

It  would  be hard to find an issue that  illustrates how little Northern Ireland matters to some Conservative MPs as the campaign to halt police investigations into cases of alleged army misconduct during the Troubles. It’s not so much calculated indifference as blimpish blindness.

This was the question to Theresa May at PMQs today:

22 February 2017

 

Q9. If she will take steps to introduce legislative proposals to provide legal protection to former military personnel who served in Northern Ireland at least equivalent to that offered to former republican and loyalist paramilitaries. [908796]

As I have made clear, I think it is absolutely appalling when people try to make a business out of dragging our brave troops through the courts. In the case of Northern Ireland, 90% of deaths were caused by terrorists, and it is essential that the justice system reflects that. It would be entirely wrong to treat terrorists more favourably than soldiers or police officers. That is why, as part of our work to bring forward the Stormont House agreement Bill, we will ensure that investigative bodies are under a legal duty to be fair, balanced and proportionate so that our veterans are not unfairly treated or disproportionately investigated.

While I welcome that reply, it does not go quite as far as I and many other people would like. There is no prospect of new credible evidence coming forward against our veterans of the troubles up to 40 years after the event, yet people are starting to use the same techniques in Northern Ireland against them as were used against veterans of Iraq. Surely the answer has to be a statute of limitations preventing the prosecution of veterans to do with matters that occurred prior to the date of the Belfast agreement.

As my right hon. Friend knows, we are looking at this issue as part of the Stormont House agreement. What we are doing is ensuring that the investigative bodies responsible for looking at deaths during the troubles will operate in a fair, balanced and proportionate manner. We want cases to be considered in chronological order, and we want these protections enshrined in legislation. We are going to consult fully on these proposals, because we want to make sure that we get this right.

The first thing to notice about the question is that it limits the application of  statute of limitations to the Army. The police are not included, being mere “Irish,” even though the terrorist threat to individual police officers who lived in NI was greater than to individual soldiers whose service was rotated.

Secondly, Theresa May replied that the government were “looking at the issue as part of the Stormont House Agreement.” Not a word in her briefing notes that as far as the Executive is concerned, the Stormont House Agreement has collapsed.

Some consolation may be found in her deflecting the question and adding:  “we want to make sure we get this right.”

“Getting it right” means Westminster comprehensively legislating for dealing with past during whatever time the Assembly is dormant, as the UK government, not the dysfunctional Assembly were legally responsible throughout the Troubles. They should also lift the DUP’s  refusal to fund inquests  forthwith. Because Sinn Fein demands  this doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

As well as living up to their responsibilities rather than dumping it on the hapless locals, Westminster would be doing the community and the parties a huge favour, by determining the shape of the legislation to recognise no hierarchy of victims for the purposes of long overdue support and an independent cases review.

If they can legislate for the Irish language they can legislate for the legacy.

You don’t have to believe in equivalence between  terrorists and soldiers  to reject as a fundamental injustice any prospect of a statue of limitations for soldiers alone. I doubt if it would   get past the judges in any case.

That is not to deny  that discrimination and a sense of proportion are  necessary. The PSNI seemed to be setting themselves  to fail and perversely  proving a point by selecting  doomed high profile  inquiries such as  reopening Bloody Sunday and interrogating Gerry Adams about Mrs McConville’s  murder. On the other hand, DPPNI ‘s  answers to criticism was either ignored by Julian Brazier or  unknown to him.

A number of unionist and Conservative MPs have claimed cases involving the army are being unfairly prioritised.

“That is just not correct, that is inaccurate,” Mr McGrory told the BBC.

“We have taken decisions in three army cases recently, one was not to prosecute and in the other two prosecutions have been initiated.

“In the overall context of what we do these are a tiny number of cases. We receive 40,000 files a year, we take over 2,000 cases a year to the Crown court, and we are talking here about three cases.

“Even in terms of legacy cases, the reality is that we have prosecuted more legacy cases connected with paramilitary cases than we have in respect of military cases.”

Mr McGrory says a number of cases involving former soldiers were coming to court now because of inquests and referrals from the Attorney General for Northern Ireland.

I am personally offended by the remarks, but I am more offended on behalf of the individuals who work for the public prosecution service and who do a fantastic job, so I think those who are making those comments ought to think a bit carefully before they speak in such a way.”

Critics have also questioned how the director of the PPS could decide to charge former soldiers when one of his predecessors said there was insufficient evidence to merit a prosecution

They have suggested Mr McGrory reached a different conclusion based on the same evidence.

“That’s just inaccurate,” he says.

“In each of the three soldier cases this office has examined, there has been new evidence.

“Whether that be evidence which has been forthcoming following an inquest and referred to me by the coroner, pursuant to the powers available to the coroners, or new evidence obtained by the PSNI in the context of its investigations, or in any other context through ballistics or forensic evidence which has emerged through a variety of routes since the original decision was taken.

“Anyone who has said this is a re-taking of a decision in respect of which nothing else has changed is quite simply wrong.”

The fact that such special treatment for soldiers can even be discussed n present conditions shows  just how unregarded Northern Ireland  is in Conservative circles.  The DUP be warned.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London